Images circulated online last week show a Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) vessel equipped with what appears to be a prototype rail gun.
The images from China, taken at what appears to be the Wuchang shipyard in Wuhan, show a the PLAN Haiyang Shan, a Type 072III landing ship tank with pennant number 936, featuring a large, unidentified turret-style gun on the ship’s bow section.
The gun is positioned where the ship’s normal anti-aircraft turret would be. If the new weapon is a full-scale rail gun, it would require considerably more power than the Type 072III is equipped to provide. Analysts suspect that three shipping containers on board the ship may serve as power stations. (The U.S. Navy’s prototype weapon used multiple megawatts of power.)
China is not known to have carried out any testing of a rail gun-style weapon to date, but research and development of these kinds of weapons has been ongoing for years.
If the Haiyang Shan deploys with the rail gun on board, it would become the first warship anywhere in the world to carry this weaponry.
The appearance of the weapon in Wuchang is perhaps not a coincidence; a nearby facility is thought to contain a prototype for China’s electromagnetically assisted launch system (EMALS), intended for its future aircraft carriers.
Rail guns use electromagnetic energy to accelerate a projectile to hypersonic speeds; the projectile — a shell designed to withstand rapid acceleration — is placed in an armature, or clasp, that sits between metal rails.
A massive surge in electric current then activates magnetic fields, which propel the projectile and the armature forward. The shell is then ejected from the weapon’s barrel at hypersonic speeds, inflicting massive damage through sheer kinetic energy.
The advantages of a rail gun, including the relative simplicity of the weapon when compared with ballistic or cruise missiles, are many.
Depending on the flexibility of the projectile launcher, the weapon could be used in defensive applications against inbound missiles or even used for long-range bombardments. In naval surface warfare, the rail-gun would also provide an important anti-ship capability at medium-to-long range.
The primary drawback for the weapon is the massive energy requirement, but research into electromagnetic weaponry may alleviate this drawback in the future.
The U.S. Navy has conducted tests of a rail gun, but the weapon has not been deployed, primarily due to cost concerns.
China’s work on a ship-borne rail gun had not previously been reported and though the leaked images are suggestive of considerable progress — at least toward a ship-mounted prototype — it’s unclear just how well the PLAN’s rail-gun will perform.
The weapon could still be undergoing testing, with the Type 072III chosen as a test platform.